SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | March 25, 2012
Director: Martha Stephens
Writers: Karrie Crouse, Martha Stephens
Starring: Timothy Morton, Bryan Marshall, Karrie Crouse, Harrison Cole, Michael Abbott Jr., Earl Lynn Nelson, Kristin Slaysman
Pilgrim Song begins as James (Timothy Morton) is laid off from his job as a public middle school music teacher; additionally, the spark in his long-term relationship with Joan (Karrie Crouse) has all but fizzled out. James thus finds himself stuck in an existential quagmire; and rather than dealing with his employment and relationship issues head-on, James desperately attempts to shut down all human interaction. James decides that the best way to “deal” with his predicament is to embark upon a solitary journey on Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail.
And, yes, a solitary journey means a silent and contemplative one. With no one for James to converse with, Alexander Sablow’s cinematography must rely solely upon a series of lush visual compositions (and the support of an amazing soundtrack composed by Andrew Iafrate and Jonathan Wood) to transport us into James’ mindset. As James is lulled into a tranquil meditative state by his meandering hike, we are too. It is not too long, though, before James begins to encounter other characters along his epic-like odyssey. We witness as these chance meetings slowly chip away at the wall that James has constructed around himself until James ultimately gets to the point that he is finally able to talk about his feelings.
While working on this review, I went back to read what I wrote in my review of Martha Stephens’ debut feature, Passenger Pigeons. Yes, Pilgrim Song is less of an ensemble piece and it steers away from blatantly discussing politics, but much of what I wrote about Passenger Pigeons can also be applied to Pilgrim Song. In both films, Stephens is never condescending or patronizing of her characters, yet she never romanticizes them either. Stephens casts highly naturalistic actors and places them in scenes alongside real people; she captures their stories as if shooting a documentary, allowing their narratives to breath while unfolding naturally and organically. Her unabashed desire to capture the purist possible realism is akin to the tone, pacing and visual aesthetic of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy — Reichardt is certainly someone with whom Stephens shares a fondness for what has come to be known as “slow cinema.”
When most people think of female directors they assume that their films will portray complex female lead characters — such as Robin (Martha Stephens) in Passenger Pigeons — but with Pilgrim Song, Stephens and co-writer Karrie Crouse develop an extraordinarily profound portrayal of a male lead. Truth be told, their insight into James’ psyche is keener than that of most male filmmakers — and this begs the question if observing others (especially of the opposite sex) could be a more valuable resource than experiencing a situation first hand? Judging from personal experiences, Stephens and Crouse’s representation of the male tendency to run away from problems rather than talk about them is totally spot on. In my lifetime, I have been on a few too many solitary journeys deep into the wilderness in order to piece my life back together; and watching Pilgrim Song is eerily similar to my memories of those trips. What are you doing in my head Ms. Stephens?
(Also check out Linc Leifeste’s 8.5 out of 10 review of Pilgrim Song as well as our SXSW 2012 interview with Martha Stephens, Karrie Crouse, Timothy Morton, Bryan Marshall, Kristin Slaysman and Michael Abbott Jr.)